By DOUGLAS T. BATES III
CENTERVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 19, 2023 — It began in a random call in the autumn of 1992 to a stranger and became a veritable “hajj,” not to circle the Kaaba, but to attend 11 storied college football games between ancient rivals.
The journey carried us from Boston to Berkeley, from Philadelphia in the East to small towns in the Midwest, to the southern metropolis of Atlanta to an Alabama college town known in poetry as “the loveliest village on the plain.”
It spanned 17 years and saw my son and fellow pilgrim Douglas T. Bates IV go from an eighth grader to a combat veteran, lawyer, and husband whose wife accompanied us and was our host on one trip.
Douglas T. Bates IV and Douglas T. Bates III, outside the family law office in Centerville, Tennessee, wearing souvenir ball caps from the first of the Big Game football rivalries they experienced together — Harvard vs. Yale in 1992. (Photo by Becki Bates)
Though it was about football games, it was so much more. Ironically, it ended in church.
I pause before I reflect on the project to try to describe these games. If, Kind Reader, you are a college football fan, you know about the magic of these games. If you live in Iowa, as many readers of this publication do, you know about the ethers which seem to surround the Iowa vs. Iowa State game.
Most college football programs have on their schedule a game against a rival which they call “arch.” Such a game is played every year, and the outcome is, as the late Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty pronounced, “not a matter of life and death; it is more important than that.”
These duels bring together two schools and their clan-like fan bases which feign a deep dislike but mask a mutual respect for each other. Sometime the rivalry comes from shared history, shared locations, shared culture.
The annual meetings themselves create a historic tapestry of memories shared by generations. The games and their concurrent happenings are grand institutions, like ancient festivals that have conquered time.
Now come along with us, only a few years back in our time, but decades, often a century, in their time.
YALE vs. HARVARD (1992, Harvard 14, Yale 0)
I knew no one at Yale when I made my first call there. The operator asked me to whom I wished to be connected and she gave me “A” and it was “Alumni Office,” and a sweet voice answered, “Alumni Association, Judy Cole.” I timidly explained that my son and I were coming to the Harvard vs. Yale game in a few weeks on a lark; we did not know anyone there and solicited some advice.
My new friend purred, “This is wonderful! Let me do some work on it and I will call you back.”
Two hours later she called and excitedly explained, “I have called over to Harvard to a friend there and we have your weekend all planned: Tour of Harvard Thursday, tour of Yale Friday, joint concert with both college choirs at Harvard Friday night, midnight pep rally. You and your son and I will lunch together Friday.”
I dared mention Mory’s, a famous old watering hole adjacent to the Yale campus that is mentioned in “The Wiffenpoof Song,”one of the few things I knew about Yale. She sadly told me it is a private club open only to members. We said goodbye and I thanked her deeply.
An hour or so later she called me back, announcing that she had called her father, George McCorkle, a Yale alumnus who was still a member of that Mory’s. He was going to drive up from New York City and take the three of us to lunch at that place whose history dates back to 1815.
The weekend took place exactly as Judy Cole had planned it. We even carved our initials on a table at Mory’s, a tradition for first-time customers. Our host George McCorkle had done likewise before he went off to war with the heroic Yale Class of 1942.
Douglas T. Bates III shared the stories of all the stops on the football odyssey he had with son Douglas T. Bates IV with readers of their hometown newspaper, the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn.
The atmosphere on the Big Game weekend on both campuses is clever and fun. The respective student newspapers, the “Harvard Crimson” and the “Yale Daily News,” had special editions dedicated to jokes and ribbing at the other’s expenses. We got in late to the home of our hosts, Jennie and Ed Ochal, lifelong friends of my wife Molly Bates from their years growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y. We had attended the annual joint concert of both glee clubs – again, full of joy and good cheer. Each school has multiple fight songs and most of the tunes are familiar, having been adopted by many colleges founded later across the nation.
The game at Harvard’s stately old stadium was a festival of fun. (Yale’s stadium, the Yale Bowl, is just as stately, once seated 75,000, and was the prototype of the Rose Bowl.) The bands are outrageous in their tasteful mocking of their adversaries.
The two schools are perennial powers of the Ivy League which features unequalled academic programs and pretty darn good football. Though the fans are preoccupied with revelry, the teams take the game seriously.
In our visit, Harvard upset Yale 14-0, and afterward, each band finally got serious and played their Alma Maters. Those songs link students and alumni around the world.
The night before the game, at around midnight at the pep rally in Harvard Yard, I had been so moved when a student sang “Fair Harvard” in a rich baritone voice. I asked him where he was from. “Ghana,” he replied.
TEXAS vs. TEXAS A&M (1993, A&M 18, Texas 9)
As I recall, we intended to return to Harvard vs. Yale the next year, but instead, we decided to try our luck on the ancient Thanksgiving classic between Texas and Texas A&M.
I again called someone out of the blue, this time in College Station, Tex. And before long, I was talking to new friends, Tex and Margorie Wright, who welcomed us into their home on the Wednesday before the game. (They would later come to our town of Centerville in west-central Tennessee for a visit.) The Wrights put me in touch with Betsy and Sam Rowland, who immediately ON THE PHONE invited us to Thanksgiving Dinner and to a post-game reception at a swank bank penthouse. (Sam and Betsy eventually came to Centerville, too, three times! And though we lost Sam a few years ago, we are still in touch monthly with Betsy.)
For 100 years, A&M had built a bonfire on the night before the game, and upwards of 20,000 Aggies had assembled in Celt-like testimony to their love of their school. For many years it was all male and all military. Now it is co-ed but their “corps” of military students still dominate life and spirit there. (I asked Sam once if it was hard to admit women students and expand the student body. Sam explained, “Earl Rudder, then president of the school, had scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, and he told us how it was to be, and we fell in.”)
At halftime, the Fighting Aggie Marching Band, perhaps the best in the world, forms in the end zone, and the field marshal slowly yells, “Step off on Hullabaloo!” Those words are received as if they came from Mt. Sinai, and in step with the “Aggie War Hymn,” that band majestically marches down the field.
The game was played in the rain and sleet, and the Aggies won. We stood the whole time, a tradition of the “12th Man.” Indeed, their kickoff team is composed of all walk-ons, each donning “12” on their jersey. Aggies love that tradition. Heck, everything is a tradition, and they love them all.
Our yearly pilgrimage was set. The wonderful Aggies, who pride themselves on hospitality and tradition, had taught us that there are other Judy Coles indigenous to these campuses on these special weekends. We would pick out one a year and look for the magic at other games.
CAL vs. STANFORD (1994, Cal 24, Standford 23)
The next Judy Cole-like angel came to us on the airplane as we flew to the Cal vs. Standford game – aka, the “Battle for the Axe.”
“What are you boys up to?” asked the beautiful Jean Corey as we settled into our seats on a flight from Dallas to San Franscisco. After telling her our plans at Palo Alto and Berkeley for the football weekend , she asked when we were going to tour her beloved San Francisco . I told her we had no open time except Sunday, and she instantly said (this is within an hour of meeting her), “We live in Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco. My husband and I will come down Sunday and give you a tour of The City.” And that’s exactly what happened.
On that Sunday around “the City by the Bay,” Jean pointed out a magnificent church where she had sung. So at the end of the tour, as we stood high above the Twin Peaks with other tourists, I asked her if she would sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and she sang it for everyone there to hear. I later learned that, though a college nursing professor, she was also an accomplished opera singer. She had performed as Madame Butterfly. She would eventually come to Centerville three times with her husband Jim, once to sing at our daughter Sarah Bates King’s wedding. Jean sings in heaven now, “high on a hill above the bay.” She came to that new life with experience as an angel, at least to two boys who were headed to a Big Game.
Great friends since their freshman year of college together at Vanderbilt — Douglas T. Bates III and Chuck Offenburger, shown in the spring of 2023. “When people hear about the football odyssey that my son Douglas and I had,” Bates III said, “what they all wind up asking is how in the world we got so many strangers to do so much for us at all these different Big Games. I tell them it all goes back to my journalist friend Offenburger. Years ago, he taught me that everybody’s got a story of their own. If you convince them you are genuinely interested in it, they’ll tell and show it all to you.”
The Cal vs. Stanford game is unique in every aspect.
On Thursday night at Stanford, there is the “Stanford Follies,” a slapstick satire featuring the wild Stanford band.
As we were touring Cal on Friday afternoon, we came across a bus and students who were throwing hockey sticks in the bay. We struck up a conversation with who turned out to be the coach of the Cal hockey team. They were headed to Stanford for a game that night. He asked us if we wanted to come along so we jumped aboard. The next day before the football game, we tailgated with the hockey coach and his family.
We interrupted our time with them to join a protest march that was passing by, borrowing handheld placards announcing our opposition or support of what-we-did-not-know. We were not going to miss an opportunity to march in Berkeley! (By the way, in February of that following year, the coach called and invited my wife Molly and me to fly back out to Berkeley to see his team play for the conference championship. And we did. One of the players rounded up some other friends we had met at Cal and hosted a dinner for us before the game.)
Though these schools are modern bastions of learning, this game is loaded with lore. They play for an axe of which the victorious team takes possession. At Stanford, it is the duty of the provost, who spent an hour telling us about the history of the trophy. Condoleezza Rice had once served as trustee of that relic.
In the fading moments of the game, Stanford scored and failed in its 2-point try, so the Cal Bears had retrieved that axe. We marched with the Cal band down University Street singing, “We are sons of California” and tarried on the campus. We even visited a fraternity house to close out a great day of old-time West Coast America.
One of the surprising aspects of these trips is this: Though they are all surrounding a classic football game between archrivals, they are all different. The ambiance of the ancient Ivy League is nothing similar to the Lone Star atmosphere or the happenings of the “Battle for the Axe” coveted by two schools located in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” (what it was called before it came to be known as “Silicon Valley”). As usual we left with memories and new friends.
ARMY vs. NAVY (1995, Army 14, Navy 13)
I do not care who is playing for the national championship, nor if there is a late season clash between two undefeated teams ranked 1 and 2. The real “Game of the Year” is always Army vs. Navy. It is played after other teams have completed their schedules so everyone can watch.
West Point has a slogan which is true for both academies, and is true of most all the games the two play: “The history we study is the history we made.”
“Beat Army” or “Beat Navy” is proclaimed in mortar and ironwork throughout those campuses. That simple prayer ends most daily formations.
To enter this sacred world, we did not have to meet a kind stranger.
One of Army’s good players then, Heath Bates, was my young distant cousin. He comes from sports royalty: His dad and I were teammates on our local high school football team, his dad being our unstoppable fullback. His mother and his aunt were each legendary basketball players for our Hickman County High during the old 6-on-6 years. His uncle played on a smaller-college national championship football team at Western Kentucky U. His brother was a star basketball player at Vanderbilt. Heath played tight end for the Black Knights of the Hudson and he would be playing his last year at West Point.
There was no question what that year’s rival game was to be for us.
We arrived in time for Thursday’s practice, and Heath invited us into the locker room to meet his teammates. We got a hamburger at Hollander’s, an on-campus grill named after an Army quarterback who was killed in Vietnam.
The next day we arrived at the barracks and witnessed the most stirring moment of all our trips: “The Sendoff.” Every member of the team shakes every hand of every member of the Corps in the pre-dawn darkness, as the band plays “On Brave Old Army Team, on to the fray.” There is a small hamlet, Highland Falls, near West Point, where the local junior high school band joins the parade as do the villagers, academy faculty and staff.
Yes, on brave old Army team, on to Philadelphia, where those young men will meet the beginning of their destiny. I did not think it at the time, but years later I’ve reflected on a deeper meaning to that anthem.
The game itself was a classic. Navy was on Army’s 2-yard line late in the game and eschewed a field goal which would have clinched a Navy win. Army stopped them and then drove 98 yards for a winning touchdown as the clock expired. Heath Bates was in for every snap of what is still called “The Drive.”
It was years later that I thought back on that dawn sendoff; Heath was on his way not just to Philadelphia but to combat in Iraq. And my high school son would go on to graduate from VMI and join Heath in Iraq for those first weeks of the Iraq War. How could I have known that among those cheered “on to the fray” that day were two Bates soldiers: Heath Bates and Douglas Bates IV?
But 8 autumns would pass before they went on to that fray, and we had one more Big Game to go to before my son’s college and Army days began. So we were “going big” next year.
MICHIGAN vs. OHIO STATE (1996, Michigan 13, Ohio State 9)
We are often asked which was the best of our games. We never answer; they are all wonderful and all special. But the biggest? Easy: Ohio State vs Michigan.
The states they represent are in the nation’s top 10 in population. These schools have tens of thousands of students, multiplied over alumni, over again fans. Their academic programs are among the elite in the world. Their campuses are sprawling, and located near the center of each are their modern-day Circus Maximus’ stadia. In Ann Arbor is “the Big House,” in Columbus “the Horse Shoe.” Their college bands present seemingly numberless members, all marching in perfect formation, and their music is deafening. For decades, their football programs have dominated the Big Ten, indeed college football in America.
Truth demands that it also be said there is something else big about Michigan and Ohio State: Their egos.
There is another “big” about them: Their contempt for each other.
Our game was in Ohio, so I can only speak of the Buckeye heart. But consider – no employee is allowed to wear anything blue to work. And no true fan of Ohio State ever says the word “Michigan” – it is either “that state up north” or “that state whose name we do not say.”
As always, we drank deeply in the atmosphere of the weekend. We went to band practice and met the tuba player who has the high honor of “dotting the i” in the famous band formation “Script Ohio.” We ate with new student friends at the Varsity, a lunch place on campus.We spent two quality hours with Bill Myles, Ohio State’s longtime assistant athletic director who was born on a Saturday of the Big Game. He arranged for us to visit before the game on Saturday with former Buckeye running back Archie Griffin, who is the only player in history to win TWO Heisman Trophies.
For the Saturday of the game we arrived before the sun was up and watched the crews of both schools race on the Olentangy River; we even helped unload and launch sculls for each crew. We could have gone to a free pancake breakfast hosted each year by the home school for health reasons, to absorb all the ethyl alcohol to be consumed.
Before the game the two bands met in the home school’s gym and played their stirring music. At the Horseshoe, we mingled with fans including a Michigan grandmother who sighed that she “would deed over my home to win this game.”
Seated around us were people of means who, like us, had bought tickets from students. Local banks offer escrow services for students and purchasers. Our cost? I will keep that secret forever. Let’s just say, like everything else, it was big.
Michigan was a 17-point underdog, and Ohio State was undefeated and had clinched the conference championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl. But Michigan had won 8 of the last 11 years in this rivalry, and palpable fear wafted over the home team’s fans.
As the game unfolded, an air of Greek tragedy settled in the Horseshoe. The unthinkable happened, and Michigan won 13-9. Sophocles might have written the articles in the Columbus Post Dispatch the next morning: “They are not wolverines; they are albatrosses, burdens, damnations, expletives not deleted, scrooges, tormentor. Ohio State’s perfect season turned into a perfect mess.”
As we made our way through the sullen crowd, we paused to visit the Michigan grandmother who had wished to swap her home for a victory. I told her I was a lawyer and could prepare the deed. She was in ecstasy and seemed ready to sign.
We did not try to say goodbye to our new friends. We knew they were in no mood. And we carried a little sadness in our own hearts. We knew that our Big Game odyssey would be on hold during Douglas IV’s college and Army years. And after that? Well, 8 years can bring a lot of changes.
We did not talk much as we drove home from Columbus. We had seen the biggest of the Big Games and regretted the pain our new Ohio fans felt. But there was always the next season and, for us, VMI Keydet football. But what after that?
GAME DAY at VMI
Four autumns were to pass after we left the grieving Buckeyes, and there were no football trips for us Bates boys. But each of those seasons was filled with college football “on the post” of the Virginia Military Institute, as her gallant gridiron Keydets vied with Southern Conference foes. I have never included those fall Saturdays as a part of our pilgrimages to the big rivalry games. But I do so now, for they were as special as any of the Saturdays of our special trips. There is simply nothing in college football greater than a football game at VMI.
In front of the barracks where all students live, there is a resplendent parade ground where the entire student body marches most every Friday of the school term and again on Saturday mornings before football games. On the outer edges on that lawn, tailgaters assemble and by parade time, there are scores of picnics set up. Out from the barracks march the cadets in their magnificent formal uniforms accompanied by the band and bag pipes, all observed by adoring families and friends.
At the end of the parade, the school band strikes up the jaunty tune of the VMI fight song, “The Spirit of VMI.” And everyone claps to its cheerful beat. The students return after marching and mingle among the fans . VMI has a saying to describe its community: “In the bonds.” There are no strangers, as every cadet is welcome at every tailgate. All are in the bonds.
After a repast and sips of medical nips, the cadets form again and march down to the field, the band leading the student body en masse.
The VMI alumnus Douglas T. Bates IV in his Centerville, Tennessee, law office.
There is a special moment which always moved me to tears – still does. As the body of the bonds move down from the hill above the field, the band plays “Shenandoah,” as a tribute to that beloved Virginia valley where that special school has thrived, even where her students had fought and died, where now her sons and daughters endure a rigorous 4-year experience, and which remains in their hearts forever. Many have observed that VMI’s sons and daughters spend 4 years trying to get out and 50 years trying to get back in.
After each game the VMI team assembles, and four trumpets appear high on top of the press box and play the “Doxology,” ending with “God bless our team and V-M-I!” No Sports Center Gameday can match that moment.
I have not captured in these words the grandeur of the day from the beginning of the processional to the ending of the benediction. Our entire family and many of our friends, including Chuck Offenburger, have experienced what I cannot adequately describe. I will merely say this: If I could take you to one place at one time, of all the places and times of college football games I have experienced, it would be the sight of the VMI Corps and the sound of haunting notes of “Shenandoah” on an autumn day in that valley.
TEXAS STATE FAIR (2001, Oklahoma 14 Texas 3)
Douglas IV graduated from VMI in the spring of 2001 and was commissioned in the Army as a field artillery officer. His first assignment was attendance at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma. He noticed that he was scheduled for a free weekend at the time as the annual football game at the Texas State Fair in the Cotton Bowl, pitting Oklahoma and Texas.
Unlike most of the other games we had attended, this one was played at a neutral site. A neutral site? Well, the Cotton Bowl turns out to be about midway between the two schools’ campuses, and there is exactly the same number of fans from each school present.
The bands together play the National Anthem, and the fans of one school dislike the other’s fans exactly the same. Outside the stadium we saw a fight between two of them, and as an elderly couple walked around the boys wrestling on the ground, the matron gleefully observed, “We are on top!”
When I was growing up there was but one game on TV on Saturdays, and the Texas vs. Oklahoma game was always telecasted nationally.
They were each gridiron powers and shared a key figure, Darrell Royal, the longtime Texas coach was a great quarterback for Bud Wilkinson, the venerated Oklahoma coach. Texas was a power in the old Southwest Conference and Oklahoma was in the old Big 8. Under Wilkinson the Sooners once won 47 straight games. The Sooners and the Longhorns were national championship contenders every year.
Before their annual game, the Oklahoma band gleefully plays Rodgers and Hammerstein’s title song of their musical “Oklahoma,” the Texas band plays solemnly “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,” and the game begins. We had great seats close to the action and could hear the brutal hits during each play. I was sure I had bruises after the game. Oklahoma and Texas produce MEN, and this was a contest between Men. At the end Oklahoma prevailed 14-3.
This contest was played only a few weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and hijacking of the other airplane that crashed in a farm field in Pennsylvania.
On a sports radio talk show that Sunday, the banter about the quarterback controversy at Texas was interrupted to announce that American bombers had begun sorties over Afghanistan. After the news flash the commentators quickly returned to the game.
I did not so quickly return, for I knew that soon there would be American artillery firing rounds and I knew one soldier who would probably be firing them. There would be no Big Games for us for the coming years. There would, however, be another Big Game, even more real, awaiting young Lieutenant Bates IV.
“WORLD’S LARGEST OUTDOOR COCKTAIL PARTY” (2005, Florida 14, Georgia 10)
Douglas IV was safely home from Iraq and was now a law school student at the University of Tennessee. When we thought of how to renew the Big Game trips, we quickly agreed we want to party, and so it was an easy choice.
The Georgia vs. Florida game, played each year in Jacksonville, is called “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Since 1933 these two Southeastern Conference rivals have played in Jacksonville and the games have been legendary. Both schools take their football seriously, as do their respective fan bases. But on this special weekend, they take their partying seriously also.
We partied with them .We checked into an ocean front hotel at Amelia Island, and after a beverage plus a “dividend” with an old friend whom I will identify later, we made our way to the Georgia party, where two bands from my youth performed – the “Swinging Medallions” (“Double Shot of my Baby’s Love”) and “The Tams” (“Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”). Middle-aged men and women were turned back into 20-year-olds who could sing along with every word of those anthems of our youth.
The affair went on past midnight. Bright and early the next day, we boarded a bus to take us to the dock. At the bus pickup were Bloody Marys which were included in the fare. Dock? We went to the stadium by boat on the St. John’s River where there was a band on board. Revived fans began to dance as the boat cruised to the site of the game. The ushers were checking for bottles of “cocktails,” but a friendly Gator assured Douglas IV, “They won’t check your crotch.”
The game was close, with Georgia losing and thus losing its undefeated season. But there was no dark grief as there had been in Columbus a few years before. We got on a boat, the band struck up and the party resumed.
As fun as the weekend was, the best part was re-connecting then with my old friend Paul Kurtz. We had not seen each other since our Vanderbilt years. He was a law professor at Georgia. There was no good reason we had not been in touch. We called that period “The Interregnum.” We resumed our friendship instantly, and since that party/game, few months have gone by when we have not talked or visited.
And on the way down Centerville to Jacksonville, we left Molly in Athens, Ga., where she stayed the weekend with her roommate from the University of Kentucky and her husband who teaches at Georgia. Molly had not seen Sandy and Harry Mills, but for a time or two, since she was in their wedding in Hazard, Ky., in 1966.
Often there were new friends made on these weekends. This time we renewed old ones. It was a grand party.
The magic of the Big Game was back – 60-year-olds were young again, old friends were reunited. And two older and sadder soldiers, one recently returned from the fray, were “young, foolish, and happy.”
A WORD ABOUT D3 FOOTBALL
I break this narrative, before I take you to two special little colleges, to say a word about NCAA Division III football, in which players compete for the love of the game with no scholarships and no NIL money, no conference realignment, and no transfer portal. When we began and even when we ended our journey, even at the big schools there were none of these things many of us believe will kill the game we love so.
I think not. College football will live on at small schools, like the ones we are going to in 2006. But before then, the Bateses had already experienced the fun of D3 football, which now in 2023, seems like it might become the repository of this great game.
When daughter Sarah was a student at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, she became friends with that school’s very successful head football coach, Steve Miller, who had also been a star quarterback for the Rams. His son was likewise an outstanding Ram quarterback. Sarah covered the team for the student newspaper and got to attend away games and see those beautiful campuses of schools in the Midwest and the old Iowa Conferences. Coach Miller and his wife Ruth have come to Centerville.
Once he shared with me that every Thursday evening except during the holidays, he was on the phone recruiting. Coaches at D3 programs work hard and produce good players and good men. Once we were in Mt. Vernon for Cornell’s game against Coe College – the oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi River. I wished the Cornell place kicker good luck for the game, and he told me he was taking the medical school entrance exam the next week. Real students playing real football coached by great coaches on beautiful campuses. Now I am ready to take you to the D3 equivalent of what broadcaster Keith Jackson used to call the Rose Bowl, “the granddaddy of them all.”
“THE BATTLE FOR THE MONON BELL” (2006, Wabash 23, DePauw 20)
We had revived our pilgrimages by attending a party in Jacksonville, Florida. One does not turn to Indiana for parties.
In 1832, the Presbyterians of Crawfordsville, Ind., established a college, Wabash. Five years later and 40 miles to the south, the Methodists established their own college in Greencastle, DePauw. In the fall of 1890, they played their first football game against each other. It immediately became an intense affair and in 1932 the Monon Railroad, which ran between the two towns, decided that the game need a trophy, besides each other’s heads. The railroad company donated the bell from its locomotive and thereafter these schools played for the Monon Bell.
It is a trophy which breathes life into those schools. They are different institutions.
Wabash College has 1,800 or so students, all male, and reflects its Calvinist conservatist roots. DePauw University has 2,500 or so co-ed students and is more Methodist and, well, artsy.
We went to classes on both campuses. We even went to a chapel service at Wabash where the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, and Golden Rule were summarized simply as “Beat DePauw.” We happened to meet the conductor of the orchestra at DePauw, who invited us to come to their practice that afternoon. It was a full orchestra.
They cannot agree on what to call each other. The Wabash Little Giants (their real nickname) call DePauw students “Dannies.” DePauw Tigers (their real nickname) call Wabash students “Cavemen.”
But they both love that bell madly and covet its presence on their campuses. It has been stolen successfully 9 times, and there have been scores of other pilfering attempts. On our year, Wabash had it and students rang it constantly from Friday dusk until game time on Saturday.
It is small-college football, but each year there are over 50 cities across the nation which host parties and stream the games into those gatherings. Before the game, we visited a brunch where old Tigers/Dannies assembled and met Jim Menigham and Warren Magnuson, who were teammates in 1951. Jim is working on a string of attending consecutive Monon Bell games. He is at 64 straight in 2023.
The game was full of heroic plays and finally Wabash prevailed, 23-20.
The history of the game is beyond strange. Often one team will go on long streaks of victories, followed by long streaks by the other. Often one of the teams goes into the game undefeated, and more often than not, loses. There have been miraculous comebacks, the details of which are repeated through the years.
While it might have been small-college football, it was pure – as pure as the peals of the Monon Bell all through Friday night. As we said goodbye to each athletic director, some of the students and faculty we had met, to Jim and Warren with whom we have stayed in touch since, the last sounds we heard were the peals of that bell, surely the purest peals in college football.
AUBURN vs. ALABAMA , “The Iron Bowl” ( 2007, Auburn 17, Alabama 10)
“Sweet Auburn, loveliest village on the plain/ As each repeated pleasure tried./ Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspired.” (Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village,” a 1770 poem that inspired the naming of Auburn, Alabama.)
“What do a maggot and a Bama fane have in common? They both live years off a dead bear.” (Words on a bar room wall in Auburn, still there, too.)
Our family had wonderfully expanded. Douglas IV had taken a new bride, Becki, an Auburn girl, and Molly and I met them in in Auburn for the season-ending game between Auburn and Alabama.
The Bateses at the Iron Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama. Left to right, Doug IV, Becki, Molly and Doug III.
It’s called the Iron Bowl because the game was, until 1999, played in Birmingham, the “Steel City of the South.” The rivalry is not that old, for although their first game was in 1893, they did not play for 41 years. “We could not stand the sight of each other,” an Auburn fan explained to me.
Their fans are of the deep South and would not admit they hate each other, and there is not the stench of contempt which surrounds the Michigan vs. Ohio State game. Their fans are scattered throughout Alabama, and must live and work together. But they never forget who is who. They exude “War Eagle” and “Roll Tide” from all their pores.
We spent Friday night at the Strutting Duck, a bar out in the country, and listened to honkytonk live music until Becki and Douglas grew tired. Molly and I were going strong at midnight. I grew up in a moonshine community and was warned from my youth against drinking whiskey distilled by strangers. But when Bill Clem went to his truck and brought back some of his finest, what could we do? The flavor was caramel apple. It was several minutes after the bite wore off, but that taste did come through. Clem had invited us to his tailgate, where a whole pig was cooked.
Remember the game was at 8 p.m., and we were on campus by 9 a.m. and the place was packed. We met a Roll Tider, Chuck Compton, who had been to 31 straight Iron Bowls, though he admitted he missed the first half the day of his dad’s funeral. A War Eagle, Cheryl Brogdon, said this was her favorite holiday, better than Christmas.
The game was an Auburn victory, 17-10, their sixth in a row. Afterward, we “rolled Toomer’s Corner,” the location of a historic business Toomer’s Drugs, by throwing rolls of toilet paper on the trees in the center of the “loveliest village on the plain.” That’s a sacred rite after a victory for the Auburn Tigers, whom the old timers still call the Plainsmen.
But we were not through with the game.
It is required of the student body president of the losing school to appear at the half of the next basketball game at the winning school’s gym to do a final duty of defeat. So, the following February, we four went again to Auburn and witnessed R.B. Walker, president of the Alabama student body, wearing a crimson tie with red elephants, lead the crowd in the stirring words of the Auburn fight song, “War Eagle fly down the field.” Walker worked the crowd warmly – we will hear from him again.
Every one of these games has a sacred moment. This one has the traditional pre-game flight of Auburn’s Golden Eagle. A reverent hush fell over the Plainsmen and I stole a glance at Becki and she had tears in her eyes. Our son had married well.
“THE BACKYARD BRAWL” & THE MOST TOUCHING MOMENT OF ALL (2008, Pitt 19, West Virginia 15)
It was 16 years after Judy Cole had been so generous in helping us for the Harvard vs. Yale game, which had started our football odyssey to all the rest of these wonderful games. I had stayed in touch with Judy, and she even had hired our daughter Sarah briefly as an intern at Yale’s Alumni Association. But she had moved on to Pittsburgh, where she had become the alumni director for Carnegie Mellon University, a prestigious private school. Meanwhile, Sarah had married a Virginian, Brian King, and the Bates clan was to assemble for Thanksgiving at the King home in Fredericksburg. Douglas IV suggested that the Kings, he and I travel to Pittsburgh to see the University of Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia “Back Yard Brawl” game, and we would arrange to meet up with Judy.
When I contacted her, not surprisingly her generous spirit was intact. “Why don’t I fix Thanksgiving Dinner for everyone?” she said. The trip was on.
Molly and granddaughter Anna Cate King stayed in Fredericksburg to bake a “cococake,” and we headed out to Pittsburgh: Your scribe, Douglas IV, daughter Sarah, and prized son-in-law Brian. He, by the way, is a Virginia Tech Hokie, a well-travelled and classical college fan himself. The two of us have shared some Va Tech vs. Virginia games). Daughter-in-law Becki was away at a wedding .
We stopped in Morgantown, West Virginia, home of the Mountaineers and luckily greeted the football team as they loaded on the buses for Pittsburgh. We went on there that evening to the home of Judy Cole, who with her son Chris, welcomed our troupe. She had prepared a lavish Thanksgiving meal for us, and it was a mellow evening of gratitude and grace. We toasted her late dad, who had taken us to Mory’s many years before.
These trips had become festivals of friends, old and new. But this evening was the High Holy Day. It was the sweetest moment of them all.
Before the game the next day we toured the Pitt campus which is stunningly beautiful. In the center rises the Cathedral of Learning, a majestic tower of several stories each containing classrooms. Just east of this edifice is the majestic Heinz Memorial Chapel, and between them is a sidewalk containing the names of famous Pitt Panthers including Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, coaches Jock Sutherland and our own Johnny Majors. Even Pop Warner, one of the inventors of American football, coached there.
The game was a brawl indeed, and ended when West Virginia was stopped on the Pitt goal to preserve a 19-15 Panther victory. It was biting cold, but these fans came from winter stock.
From our seats we could see the place where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. We were deep in America. We witnessed a storied game between two schools which shared a heritage of work, of coal and steel. We had been hosted by a classy benefactor at a Thanksgiving containing just that. We were cold on the outside but warm on the inside.
HATE ON SATURDAY LOVE ON SUNDAY (2009, Georgia 30, Georgia Tech 24)
Arch rivalries change and sometimes die. Vanderbilt and Sewanee use to play on Thanksgiving Day in Nashville. Boston College and Holy Cross played a year-ending classic. VMI and Virginia Tech played in Roanoke in the Oyster Bowl. LSU played Tulane, Fordham played Columbia.
Many rivalries are lopsided in favor of one of the teams but still play. I am thinking of Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State, North Carolina vs. Duke, Virginia vs. Virginia Tech. In those games the dominant team comes to view its rival with arrogant contempt, and the weaker team nurtures in their hearts smoldering hatred for the many losses. I am an expert on these, for I am a Vanderbilt fan whose archrival is Tennessee.
The Georgia vs. Georgia Tech game is a perfect example of the latter category. Through the 1950s and ’60s, Tech more than held its own, yet for recent decades it has been generally all Georgia.
In 2009 Tech had climbed to seventh in the country and Georgia was having a mediocre season. It looked like this was to be a victory for the Rambling Wreck on their home field in Atlanta. We decided to scoot down to Atlanta to experience what the Georgia Tech fans call “pure old fashion hate” and share with the lesser light of an old rivalry a rare victory.
We spent our morning with Professor Paul Kurtz of the Georgia Law School. You remember he and I had been reunited at the Georgia vs. Florida game 4 years earlier.
Tech teams are called both the “Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech” and the “Yellow Jackets,” not from the insects but because old fans wore yellow jackets to the games. In time the name morphed into those little critters with stingers. Georgia fans dismissively call them “bumble bees.” Maddingly, the Yellow Jackets did not fulfill their hoped-for destiny and lost to the Bulldogs, 30-24.
The Georgia fans were arrogant, and the Jacket fans were solemn. A Tech fan on our row loudly proclaimed after the game, “It’s ok, we still win the ACC title.” But other Yellow Jacket fans bitterly responded, “Shut up!” They had lost a rare opportunity to defeat their archrival, and it was not O.K.
On Sunday morning, we did ourselves the great privilege of attending the worship service of one of America’s most important churches, Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and his famous son Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had shared the pastorate.
We talked to many worshippers who were there in April, 1968, on the Sunday after King Jr. was killed and “Daddy King” courageously delivered a sermon on “Love.” His son often said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
We heard a marvelous choir and listened to an eloquent sermon at this famous church. But the best moment came during the pastoral prayer when an older gentleman in our pew, several open spaces from us, silently moved to Douglas IV’s side and held his hand during the prayer.
We had come to Atlanta to see Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, known for its “good old fashion hate.”
But the better part of the weekend was being in a place where love drives out hate.
The weekend was complete and so was our pilgrimage.
It started in the Alumni House at Harvard and went through Mory’s in New Haven. It included drinking moonshine at the Strutting Duck outside Auburn, and ended in church in Atlanta. We went searching for the magic of college football’s ancient rivalries. We found that magic, and much more.
Douglas had become a good man and I had become an older one.
I thank you for coming along, and I paraphrase the words of the poet Tennyson:
Always roaming with a hungry heart.
Much we have seen and known.
We are a part of all we have met.
A flashback to how it all began, in 1992. This is the story about the Bateses’ first Big Game that was published in the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn.
Douglas T. Bates III, the author of this reflection, has been Chuck Offenburger’s best friend since 1965 when they met as freshmen at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Bates is a retired attorney in his Tennessee hometown of Centerville, located 60 miles west of Nashville. His son and football Big Game partner Douglas T. Bates IV now leads the law practice. You can comment on this story by using the handy form below, or by writing directly to the author at email@example.com.